What is culture? It’s certainly something not easily definable, it’s negotiable – when it suits us – and it’s unashamedly versatile. Nevertheless, we live within it, and occasionally die for it; we argue for its global ascendancy in the pub and cry for its plight when it moves on without us. Culture is a well worn word these days in Thailand as the government’s grip on the nation loses its strength by the day, while the myopic ministry dedicated to the concept, ‘culture’, scrambles to keep a steady hand on the umbilical strings of a constantly growing number of seemingly disabused citizens. Are we on the verge of vast cultural changes in Thailand? Is it possible that inconsistencies in Thailand’s ‘grand narrative’ are emerging, testing the
cultural hegemony that has been firmly entrenched since the government’s ardent cultural reform programmes in the 40s and 50s. How can ‘Thainess’ reign supreme in a modern society where ‘mass’ communication influences much of what Thai people do, when down an immense plexus of information super highways a new kind of colonist, armies made up of zeros and ones, march towards the very heart of Thai culture, bringing with them new ideas, ideologies and iPads?
Rural Thailand, which is most of Thailand, might be said to have missed out on western cultural epochs such as the radicalism, hedonism, bogus mysticism, of the 60s and 70s; Mae Ai ethos arguably was not as submerged in cynicism, postmodern paranoia and the unbounded materialism of the 80s and 90s as Liverpool and LA. The broader cultural framework here, has been until perhaps the last decade or so, a different kettle of fish from the cultural framework in the moneyed West. You might say that Chiang Mai, for a long time, was a sort of secular city, in its own cultural world, hardly infected by the virus of cosmopolitan clichés. ‘Thainess’ was very much the daddy of culture, and up north an advanced version of the collective cultural concept was also being fervently pushed on local folk by Lannaian hardliners. Though there’s more to culture than governmental and provincial ‘centralising’ initiatives, something homogenous exists, something organic, that subversively thrives far from the clasping greedy hands of dogma. What you see is not always what you get, an indispensable maxim when discussing culture in Thailand, but that itself is a part of the culture. If there exists something like a macro Thai culture (Thainess), a micro Thai culture (local-idiosyncratic), there also exists a deeply buried sub-culture (a reality conflicting with Thainess).
If Thainess has been compromised of late by the influx of western ideology, technology, enhanced economy, what are the consequences related to this transformation? How does the simple, agrarian lifestyle rate to a rural generation Y who identify themselves more with periodic technologies than they do with perennial harvests? How much has the barbarism of the internet and unstoppable public relations crusades changed Chiang Mai and its people? Have Facebook priorities taken their toll on Buddhist piety? Is the impregnable family unit sometimes finding itself divided and lost at sea? As the ‘haves’, the nouveau riche and petit-bourgeois on Nimmanheamin, quite un-Thaily air-kiss cheeks and discuss the merits of their four thousand baht bottle of heavily taxed Côtes de Nuits, do the ‘have nots’, who no doubt can only dream of Blackberry – whose tolerance has always been verily extolled by the ‘haves’ – feel any animosity towards their ‘bigger’ brothers and sisters as the need for western goods grows?
Dr. Paritat Silpakit, Director of Suan Prung Psychiatric hospital has an obvious vested interest in the cultural climate of Chiang Mai, though he, like other academics in the city, is unsure if there is anything you could strictly define as Thai culture. He explains something of the heterogeneity of local culture: “A long time ago, about 200 years, Chiang Mai was occupied by the Burmese, and after the Burmese seized power many of the people in Chiang Mai abandoned the city. Then when King Kawila took back the city people flooded to Chiang Mai, but these new inhabitants were of many different ethnicities. You could still see all the different sub-cultures 30/40 years ago, but not as much now.” Paritat explains that each part of the city was home to a different ethnicity, a different culture – “Tai Leu,” he explains, “would live in San Sai and Doi Saket.” Chiang Mai was a melting pot of cultures living together, with more and more people being brought to, and arriving in Chiang Mai as the city grew, from hill tribes, Burmese, expats from the West and capitalists from other parts of Thailand. The doctor says that many of the ethnicities soon forgot their roots. The family tree was felled, and in its place the seeds of ‘Thainess’ were sown. He goes on to say that, “The central government was afraid of northern people becoming a separate colony, that they would ‘divide and rule’, and thought necessary to unify the country so they implemented educational and religious reforms to reduce the uniqueness of the minorities.”
Modern capitalism, and its by-products – devout consumerism and vanity driven ‘conspicuous consumption'(interestingly the antithesis of many Buddhist axioms), Paritat states that in spite of many people thinking this a western phenomenon, it was deeply ingrained in Chiang Mai and Thailand long before the arrival of the internet or the foreign itinerant bared his fistful of dollars in the region. “In Asia people generally want to show what they have, wealth is a sign of success. There’s a Thai proverb that says when you’re hungry no one can see your hunger, but if you have no gold or silver people will look down on you. In the past people did not buy cars to show what they had, they bought cattle, gold, land and houses.” He does credit tourism with having a big impact on the Thai consciousness stating that, “We had to create things for the tourists, but that had an impact on the local people too. If tourists wanted discos then young Thais started going to the same discos.” Soon an accumulation of modern, western cultural trends made themselves visible in tourist heavy Chiang Mai, and the city became the country’s second most developed area. “If you have money you send your children to the city to study,” says Paritat, “but the children then become familiar with things their parents aren’t aware of.” And with the huge differences in urban life and rural life, a sometimes alienating gap manifests between friends, families, etc. It’s the poor, he says, who feel the real pressure when trying to keep up with modernity and the ever increasing superfluity of gadgets. And it’s probable that this pressure may have had an effect on crime rates. Talking about crime Paritat says, “You only have to look around, read the newspapers to see that the crime rate is rising, and the crimes are more complicated and harder to prevent.” In the past he says, “You could park your motorcycle at the market and it would be there when you got back. Now it will be gone in five minutes.”
He also remarks on Thailand’s extremely – and growing – high rate of alcohol consumption, and its myriad consequences on mental health. It’s also interesting that rife alcoholism has been prevalent only for the last 20/30 years. “The problem,” he says, “is the culture doesn’t contradict the consumption of alcohol so everyone thinks it is fine, and nowadays alcohol is also marketed to women so more women are drinking.” As well as an increase in alcoholism the suicide rate is also rising. Chiang Mai, Lamphun and Chiang Rai, has by far the highest suicide rate in Thailand, a longstanding aberration, the doctor explains, not easily understood. Part of the reason for these anomalies may be the rapid onset of consumerism and its attendant economic and social pressures, though he says there are many other reasons.
“I’m neutral about cultural change,” he says, “Look what happened with HIV twenty years ago. Everyone panicked, we thought it would be a catastrophe but we dealt with it. I see light at the end of the tunnel for all problems we face.” He goes on to point out Chiang Mai’s plentiful natural resources, and its inhabitants’ “strong sense of social capitalism”. “We have land, rain, food. If we are conservative, we have everything we need here.” He also sees a return to spiritual thinking, especially amongst the educated middle classes who he says have started to question the present state of ‘culture’, and are perhaps no longer convinced that ‘conspicuous consumption’ should be their raison détre. “we know now we can’t trust the government, we have to turn to something else, and many people are going back to spirituality.” And even though Westernisation might be seen to be the nemesis of spirituality, he is reconciled with the fact that Chiang Mai is now essentially a multicultural city: “We can’t stop the influence from other countries, and we need money from tourism. We shouldn’t blame the West for change, it’s we who opened up, we must learn to adapt, and we must accept the consequences.”
Dr. Andrea Valentin, currently working in the rarified field of ‘tourism transparency’ (providing political/cultural knowledge of countries to tourists), who has also worked with the UN on income disparity issues in Laos, is a German national currently residing in Chiang Mai. Discussing some of the aspects of Thai and northern culture, she addresses “the tourism image” an image, she says, of a culture that is portrayed, which is often not a true reflection of reality. “The Land of Smiles,” she says, “it’s absolutely brilliant, not only as a marketing strategy, but as a form of social control.” What is Thainess, she asks, saying that most foreigners here do understand that there is “something hidden, but that is also intriguing to people.” She acknowledges that ‘Thainess’ is founded in reality, in local traditions, and that by promoting such Thainess to tourists some traditions are held up, which is a good thing. “But there is a problem when the support of culture is merely based on making money, when it’s all about marketing,” she adds.
The western wave of consumerism she sees as something that might burn itself out. “Thais are becoming more aware of the pitfalls of consumerism and more are disenchanted with that lifestyle. There’s a growing cultural awareness among Thai people, and more social engagement. People of the city are becoming much more informed, much more involved, partly due to the internet and preponderance of information available to people,” Valentin says optimistically.
“There’s an immense gap between rich and poor in Thailand,” she says, “Perhaps technology can bridge that gap? Let’s bring more computers to rural areas, and more teachers too.” With enhanced technology, if it does become available to the rural classes, then she sees “great opportunities” opening up for Thailand’s poor. “Change is in the air,” she’s says confidently. For Valentin, a Buddhist, the ‘middle way’ is the best way. “Technology is wonderful, but we have to use it in a smart way, not just to put up photos on Facebook. The internet gives people the chance to be critical, to not lose face, it has the potential for Thais to speak out, to expose things, to engage with real issues.”
Federico Ferrara, Assistant Professor at the University of Hong Kong’s Department of Asian and International Studies, is an oft quoted critic on Thai politics, and is also author of ‘Thailand Unhinged’, a book that asserts to unravel some of the myths surrounding Thai culture and politics. “Personally, I don’t buy this idea of cultural decline,” Ferrara explains, saying that “culture is inherently a dynamic concept, something subject to constant change. The whole idea of cultural decline requires one to assume that there such a thing as a ‘cultural ideal’ or cultural golden age that can decline as a consequence of foreign influence or social transformation. To me, this sounds like anachronistic BS.” Ferrara’s remarks do not only relate to Thailand as a whole, and the concept of Thainess, but they remind us of the putative halcyon days of Lanna culture that both traditionalists, and perhaps more disquieting, fundamentalists, like to regale these days in the forms of banner slogans and megaphone rabble rousing. In Ferrara’s Thailand Unhinged, the author often decries Thainess and exposes it as a form of population control, rendering Thainess more an encumbering yoke, rather than collective acts of gleeful expression by Thai people. From Ferrara’s blog www.khikwai.com, he writes, “And the defenders of Thailand’s cultural heritage – those for whom cultural discourse is more than just a rhetorical strategy to legitimise an elite’s privileged access to political power – often betray a rather cartoonish view of both the ‘culture’ they seek to defend as well as the alien cultures whose encroachments they so stalwartly oppose.” He insists that Thainess is a “gross over-simplification” and asks the question, “How can whatever Thai national identity the people of Udon Thani, Chiang Mai, and Nakhorn Si Thammarat share be understood without reference to the homogeneity enforced by the authorities in Bangkok through sustained propaganda and a good deal of violence – not to mention the most careless disregard for traditional local customs? And how really ‘natural,’ ‘sacred,’ or otherwise worthy of insulation from domestic debate (not to mention ‘foreign’ ideas) should we presume that single, national identity to be?”
In answer to some of the questions posed in the introductory part of this article he says: “Thai culture has always been defined by the absorption of foreign cultures. Neither Buddhism, nor kingship, nor nationalism, nor constitutionalism are practices/belief systems invented in Thailand – they were all imported from abroad and suitably adapted. The same goes for all the ‘foreign influences’ to which Thailand is currently exposed.” He goes on to say that the idea of Thainess “is essentially a 20th century invention devised and propagated for distinctly political purposes. It strikes me that a lot of the hand-wringing over the decline of ‘Thai culture’ in fact reflects little more than anxiety about political change and the increasingly obvious failure of Thailand official ideology. Cultures don’t decline – ideologies do.”
So where were we? What is culture? Well, it’s certainly a slippery fish (that’s the second time in this piece I’ve invoked ‘fish’ as a metaphor for culture . . . and it won’t be the last). There are those who think that defining culture is a matter of throwing a bunch of verbs, adjectives and adverbs at some nouns and with enough arbitrary tosses coming up with something that suits their interests. They are the same people who would suffer some kind of (often economic) crisis if there were no definitive identity they could give their word culture. Admitting that we’re confused about whom we are, either singularly or collectively, isn’t easy, an identity, like a mother’s bosom, gives us creature comfort. Though too much time fastened to the bosom, we all know, is detrimental to our growth, to our expansion, and it fosters in us a kind of weakness, that if we’re not careful, will be exposed and manipulated by those who study our weaknesses from nine to five. Maybe culture is just too slippery, and far too sublime, to be netted, gutted, flayed and splayed for us in vivid, easily digestible detail. Maybe it’s better we just leave culture alone, admire its mythology, take refuge in its wild, bottomless seas.